Diatribe against Sarkozy that invokes 'communist hypothesis' as alternative

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: MICHAEL CRONINreviews The Meaning of Sarkozy by Alain Badiou Trans. David Fernbach Verso 117pp, £12.99

FOR ALAIN Badiou, one of France’s leading radical philosophers, the meanings of French president Nicolas Sarkozy are many.

One meaning is to see Sarkozy as the latest in a long line of figures of French counter- revolutionary reaction stretching from the Restoration of 1815, with its repudiation of the French revolutionary heritage, to the current regime, with its vigorous dismissal of May 1968 and its associated evils.

More controversially, he sees Sarkozy as the figurehead of what he describes as “transcendental Pétainism”. What Badiou understands by this is a culture of defeat, of abject submission to the laws of the powerful. Among the characteristics of this Pétainism – seen as a recurrent figure in French political history – are presenting reaction as revolution, invoking moral crises to strengthen state power, positing a specific event as the root cause of social collapse (the Popular Front, May 1968), looking abroad for models of correction (Germany, the US), and invoking an explicit or implicit model of ethnic and cultural superiority.

The use of the term “Pétainism” is knowingly provocative and historians might baulk at the anachronisms contained in the analysis, but then the language throughout the book is nothing if not forceful. The unfortunate president, with a nod to Freud, is called “Rat Man” and socialist grandees who took the president’s shilling and joined his entourage are equally ridiculed as hapless rodents.

If the language of diatribe can appear at times juvenile, it is probably worth situating the essays in Badiou’s work in the tradition of revolutionary pamphleteering, which had an honourable history of scurrilous cut-and-thrust in Ireland and France before succumbing to the policed decencies of our more polite age.

A more profound source of Badiou’s concern is with a social order that leaves no room for genuine transformation.

The representation of members of society as solely motivated by self-interest in pursuit of the unequal accumulation of wealth leads to a “whole ontology of profit”, where “what isn’t profitable has no reason for existence”.

The annexation of all areas of life to the dictates of the market means that, when the markets reveal themselves to be chronically dysfunctional, no area remains unaffected. As most mainstream parties subscribe in more or less attenuated forms to the logic of market-led capitalism, Badiou sees much ground for despair as citizens have no point outside the system from which to criticise it. They may feel anger or bewilderment, but there is nowhere for that frustration to go.

It is in this context that Badiou invokes the “communist hypothesis”. This implies a fundamental commitment to radical egalitarianism, though the essays remain frustratingly vague on what might be the finer details of the emancipatory programme.

He argues that the workers’ movements of the 19th century established this hypothesis as a mass concern and the communist parties of the 20th century tried to turn this concern into a political reality.

This “second sequence” of communism finally came to an end, mired in bureaucratic inertia and irredeemably tainted by “the deployment of extreme and bloody police violence”.

Badiou claims we are in an “interval phase”, where if the “communist hypothesis” is to emerge again it will not be through a return to the models of the past, whether 19th-century workers’ associations or 20th-century “proletarian” parties. Rather, it will take new forms, though what these forms might be is not clear.

As the recession worsens and social unrest increases apace, there is every likelihood that the “communist hypothesis” will re-emerge to capture the political imagination, though what all this will mean is a question that not even Badiou, never mind Sarkozy, can answer.

Michael Cronin teaches at DCU and is co-editor of Transforming Ireland, to be published this year by Manchester University Press